This week I wanted to go through a social media post I shared a few weeks ago about four ways to navigate sucky holidays. We all know that holidays can activate new fears and level up our anxieties – thanks so much grief. So I thought a convo about how to support ourselves through those times would be just the ticket especially since we have a new holiday every month it seems.
So originally, I wrote this post for Mother’s Day. If you’re new around here, you may not know that I lost my mom in 2016. I had just given birth after years of infertility and miscarriages, and my own daughter was a little over a year old when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Within four months and two chemo treatments, she was unable to overcome the impact of treatment on her body and we lost her. So suffice it to say, I kind of hate Mother’s Day. We could get into the capitalistic reasons behind that as well but for now, we are just going to let membership in the Dead Mom club be more than enough.
What’s interesting is that as a mom, especially after infertility struggles, a lot of people don’t understand why I would disrespect a holiday meant to honor and celebrate me. And again without getting into all the capitalistic nature of this holiday and complete lack of maternal support and care in our country, I’m just going to say that this holiday isn’t designed to celebrate me. It’s designed to celebrate a role that I fulfill in my family.
And there is nothing wrong with that. I love when my family recognizes the value and the contributions and my simple existence in our house and family dynamic. I know I make an impact and I know every single person who shows up in their family is worthy of celebration.
But because of my complicated relationship to the idea of motherhood, the good often takes a back seat. I freak out a little bit each year and some years are easier than others. However after so many years now of being a motherless daughter, I wanted to give you a little bit of insight about how I navigate this holiday and others when the grief gets heavy and wants center stage.
Now if you are new here, you may be a little surprised to hear the four things I’ve included on this list of ways to navigate sucky holidays. I promise it’s intentional and there is research backing everything I bring up here. Scientific research even.
My first piece of advice on how to navigate a sucky holiday is to make personal choices. A personal choice may seem very small. But what is small may be very very important to you. It may be one of those things you don’t get to do very often. Or maybe your opinion doesn’t get to settle a matter most times.
Personal choices mean doing what you want and not just what someone else wants you to do. Around the holidays, that is often the the last thing on our minds. We tend to generally show up on behalf of other people to create the holiday magic we know they deserve. Personally, I go out of my way to make every holiday I can a special as possible for my kid. I love the magic of it. I love being able to contribute childhood memories that activate magic in her.
But that is a personal choice for me. It is something that I love and look forward to all year round. I’ve been known to plan a St Patrick’s Day basket and brunch celebration nearly a year in advance. And that’s my personal choice, which gives me autonomy and freedom to be whatever and whoever I need to be in that moment. Essentially, you’re giving your consent to be included in festivities or not, and I think we don’t give ourselves enough opportunity to express our explicit consent or to decline.
My second piece of advice is to do something unexpected, like blowing off traditional plans or just leaving town to get some space. I highly recommend deciding to ask for cash around the holidays and putting it toward a hotel room that only you’re allowed to visit.
This might be unique to moms in some degree, but I really feel this is a universally underappreciated experience. Doing something out of the ordinary that you aren’t expected to do around the holidays is a gift to yourself. Now you might be thinking, it’s the holidays. Let someone else give you the gift! And I agree. Let everyone who says they love you give you the gift of autonomy and release from their expectations.
When we are grieving, we often do everything we can to protect the boat. Do you remember those old Looney Toons where the pirate ship would be sinking and Bugs would be stretching himself all the way out to plug each hole in the boat as it started to leak? That’s us. We will sacrifice every finger until we have to plug the holes as they pop up so that nothing goes under. Put this metaphor in the context of a holiday weekend and we end up stretched completely thin, contorted to fit the shape everyone else needs us to fit, and typically drained by the end of the celebrations instead of rested, restored, and feeling connected to ourselves or one another.
So even if it’s a simple as leaving when they need you to start cooking the turkey and telling someone else to figure it out, you can trust your people to understand how to hit the Google and make it happen. You do! And while you are undoubtedly a remarkable superhuman, this is a chance to put that superhumanness toward yourself.
My third piece of advice is to smile at yourself. This is not me saying so you should smile more because you’ll feel better. This is me saying go find a mirror and sit in front of it and give yourself a smile. Really take in the light and the sparkle that comes out of your face when you are genuinely smiling. If you’re struggling to stir up a genuine smile, think of somebody you would offer a genuine smile to. Maybe that’s your child or your partner. Maybe it’s a cute little baby in a stroller at the park. Maybe it’s a cronut from an exclusive bakery, or a plane ticket in the mail from your best friend.
What would earn your genuine, joyful smile? Bring that to mind and offer it to yourself. Because while you may be a work in progress – a broken hearted human learning to navigate grief and life and holding space for yourself – you are still a gorgeous and beautiful individual worthy of a beautiful smile. Plus, smiling releases tons of happy endorphins and you deserve those in large quantities.
We can feel really isolated when we are grieving because people are walking on eggshells. For the most part, they want to be empathetic and avoid minimizing our pain, because they’ve been listening to the show and they’re now super insightful about how to be considerate of a griever’s needs.
And that might mean that they avoid appearing too joyful or happy or smiling from ear to ear in our presence. This can come from just a lack of attunement as well, where they aren’t quite sure what we’re experiencing internally and don’t know how to gently ask. So they get a little weird and I get it. We all get a little weird and don’t know how to act when things are awkward.
This smiling at yourself piece of advice might be a good opportunity for journaling as well. I know a lot of you hate journaling, but today – I would love to tell you to just get over it and give it a try. Even if you are bristling at me right now, journaling is your body moving in agreement with your thoughts and your emotional state. It brings you a sense of connection to yourself in your spirit because you are acknowledging and bearing witness to the things you are carrying internally made manifest and put on paper.
I know journaling makes things really real and that can be scary. I know when you’re not sure what to write, it’s because you’re feeling disconnected from yourself in the first place and afraid of what could come out of you. Consider this inadvertent piece of advice 3b; that you carve out some space during your next sucky holiday and bravely put a few expressions down on paper – especially before and then after smiling at yourself in the mirror!
And my final piece of advice, if you’re still with me, might feel a little ironic after that bonus journaling advice. I want you to recognize that it is OKAY to disappoint someone and maybe even therapeutic to do it intentionally. There’s a very good chance that advice pieces one, two, or three are going to disappoint someone.
Maybe you’re the person the family relies on before the holiday magic. Maybe you have parents around who expect you to fall in line with their family traditions and it’s just too painful right now. Maybe you’re grieving because your lifestyle no longer aligns with your family traditions and they don’t understand how to love you and fold you into the family with intention just as you are.
I think a lot of the grief we experience, especially around the holidays, is often disenfranchised. It’s not related to a death, but it’s connected to the loss of a relationship, expectations of inclusion being broken, or actual verbal, emotional, mental abuse, or neglect from the people you expected to be safe with for life. Maybe you’re processing a lot in your physical body because your neurological self has carved so many pathways to protect you that it’s overwhelmed and is now showing up in your body.
For whatever reason (probably caveman biological nervous system survival reasons), our family of origin has a lot of influence over how we react to holidays and respond to the pressure from both directions to conform and create peace.
Patrons of the show know that about a month ago I talked about creating your own internal source of sunshine. That can be really hard when you are simultaneously navigating traumatic experiences, consciously or subconsciously.
So while it may seem that this entire list of advice is relatively flippant, I want you to understand that someone is going to be disappointed every day. It’s inevitable and it’s OKAY. We are typically disappointed because we have expectations on people or fluid boundaries that haven’t been well communicated or supported.
I just want to make sure that this time you are not the one whose disappointed over and over again. If you have the chance to expand into the person and the life that you want, then my question is why are you waiting? I don’t need a list of reasons. This is a rhetorical question. It could even be a journal prompt if you’re feeling adventurous. As you grieve and figure out what daily life looks like, why not also give yourself the freedom to figure out what a hopeful and positive holiday celebration might look like for you as well?
I’m going to take us back to Mother’s Day for a moment. There have been years that my family has gone above and beyond with beautiful letters and gifts and intention. And there have been years I’ve asked them to leave me completely alone. One year I couldn’t get out of bed and cried without eating all day, binge watching cop dramas and comedies and pretending the world didn’t exist.
One year I was incredibly intentional about my nourishment on Mother’s Day and made sure everything I ate was brightly colored, minimally processed, and full of nutrition. I moved my body and I drink a ton of water And by the end of it, I felt really embodied and powerful.
And I’m not going to tell you which order those Mother’s Day celebrations happened in. What matters is that I had space to disappoint someone, even if it’s my beloved child who just wants to celebrate their mom in the way that everybody has told them they should. This is my opportunity to teach people how to treat me – and that includes letting them know how I feel seen and celebrated. For me? That’s autonomy. That’s flexibility to pivot and become who I need most that day, or even in that moment. That’s the best gift I could ever ask for.
Thank you for listening to episode 86 of Restorative Grief. Sometimes a list of things we can check off is great, but honestly, sometimes we just need a reminder that the best plan for healing is person-centered and that person is us. It can be a lot of work creating new expectations, boundaries, and space for ourselves when we’re already grieving. But honestly, what would it mean for you to start taking up space in your own story of grief?
If this is your first time listening, thanks for making space for this! This is a great start – allowing yourself the time and intention of listening to a new thing that just might help you find a pathway forward. Please be sure to leave a review wherever you listen and also subscribe so you won’t miss next week’s interview with Jan Owen, a brilliant trauma therapist sharing her story about working as a grief professional and pursuing grief work in her own right at the same time. And thank you, as always, to each of my patrons and premium subscribers! There are so many of you these days and I am beyond grateful. Really truly – this work makes a difference and you make it happen.
And before we go, as always, one last thing: Please remember the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
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